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Congress Orders Cost Estimate of Open Access Publishing Requirement from White House

APR 05, 2024
The cost of deploying the White House’s 2022 policy on open access publishing remains a concern in Congress.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
Alondra Nelson

Former OSTP director Alondra Nelson, author of the “Nelson memo” that underpins the current debate over open access policies.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Congress continues to press the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for a cost estimate of its open access plan for federally funded research.

In August 2022, OSTP’s then acting-director, Alondra Nelson, issued a memo directing all science agencies to require that the research they fund be free to the public at the time of publication — a major shift from the prior policy, which allowed publishers to keep some content behind subscription paywalls for up to a year.

Concerned about its potential costs, Congress included a provision in appropriations legislation enacted last month requiring OSTP to conduct an “in-depth financial analysis” of the new policy and share the results by this June. If OSTP fails to produce the financial analysis by this deadline, the office must put its plans on hold until the analysis is provided to Congress.

The House Appropriations Committee had pushed to prohibit OSTP from implementing the policy entirely, calling it an “unfunded mandate” that was published without a “serious financial analysis.” However, lawmakers removed that prohibition from the final legislation and replaced it with the cost estimate requirement.

OSTP has already published two reports looking at how much money the federal government currently spends on open access publishing, responding to previous congressional directives. The first report , published in 2022, estimated the costs range between $390 million and $789 million annually. In 2023, OSTP published a second report estimating how much federal agencies and grantees spent on article processing charges (APCs) required to publish articles in open access journals. OSTP calculated that these APC fees totaled around $272 million in 2016 and increased annually up to $379 million in 2021.

In both reports, OSTP said it is challenging to calculate total expenditures on APCs because there is no consistent method for paying them. The costs can be covered by any variety of grants, contracts, or budgets and might be baked into the costs of a grant or require researchers to request reimbursement for publishing fees after the fact. “True APC expenditure records rest with the authors or institutions that pay these fees and the publishers that invoice them,” OSTP stated in the 2023 report.

All federal agencies that fund research are expected to publish open access plans that align with the Nelson memo by the end of this year and to implement them by the end of 2025.

Though many agencies have already embraced forms of open access publishing, the Nelson memo represents a major shake-up of the publishing industry – one that could prompt a widespread move away from charging readers a subscription to instead asking authors to contribute to publishing costs upfront.

Some lawmakers have raised concerns that moving toward a pay-to-publish model could disadvantage researchers from less-well funded institutions and that the open access requirement could undermine researcher autonomy. The House Appropriations Committee, for example, stated researchers “should have the right to choose how and where they publish or communicate their research and should not be compelled to disseminate their research in ways, or under licenses, that could compromise its integrity or result in modification, manipulations, or monetization without consent.”

OSTP counters, however, that taxpayers should not face barriers to the research they fund. “The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually,” said Alondra Nelson, then acting-head of OSTP in a blog post accompanying the 2022 policy. “There should be no delay or barrier between the American public and the returns on their investments in research.”

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